School of Rock
The kids who take music lessons from Marc Solomon don't have recitals. They have concerts. Recitals require stiff suits and taffeta dresses, church manners and minor anxiety attacks. But these kids wear whatever they want--torn T-shirt, faded jeans, a tie if they're feelin' it. Backstage, in between their performances, the kids chat about the show, the vibe, give each other pats on the back. It's not exactly a paying gig. But for a group of pre-pubes who arrived in the back seat of their parents' minivans, it ain't bad.
Thirty-seven-year-old guitar teacher Solomon calls these regular concerts for parents and other camera-toting parties "The Rock Show." They're relaxed and casual: wine for the adults, Rice Krispies treats for the kids. The evening's set list alternates between finger-picked classics and all-out rockers guaranteed to please, anything from the Beatles to Green Day, from Elvis Presley to U2. Back when I was a kid taking piano lessons, our dreaded yearly performances were as nerve-wracking and solemn as a first communion. Not here: This is the kind of place where a 9-year-old once sang the most amazingly tongue-in-cheek version of the Fountains of Wayne MILF anthem, "Stacy's Mom," to a great deal of (adult) hooting and hollering. At 10 p.m. or so, when the show has wrapped, the kids are usually spent, lying across fold-out chairs. But it's not unusual to see a mom on her feet for the finale, throwing devil horns in the air.
The 2003 film School of Rock familiarized us with the concept (and the cuteness) of little kids strapping on electric guitars. The film is essentially a comic fable, but the trend it portrays is real: Musically curious children are shaking off the confines of orchestra and band in favor of the riffs and raucousness of rock. Local underage bands like Minority, DV8 and Eisley became scene veterans before they could even vote. And this is happening all over the country: At this year's Sundance Film Festival, director Don Argott premiered Rock School, a documentary about Paul Green's after-school music program, whose curriculum includes lessons on Metallica and Led Zeppelin. Green hopes to eventually take the school nationwide.
As a hobby, rock music isn't exactly cheap--Solomon charges $40 an hour for a private lesson, and your run-of-the-mill starter guitar costs around $500. Of course, some parents spend a fortune more on amps, pedals and accoutrements, and it's not unusual to see a kid walk onstage at one of Solomon's rock shows with a $2,500 Les Paul. Kinda makes a grand piano seem thrifty.
What's amazing is not that kids love electric guitars, power chords and noise but that their parents do, too. When I was a teenager, guitar lessons were a phase to be indulged, like spiky bangs and blue mascara. Today's parents, weaned on '70s and '80s radio, can't get enough of it. It's familiar to them. It's cool. This family-friendly celebration of rock may also signal its demise: As hip-hop and metal push rock off the radio dial and into the classroom, it's hard to argue the genre holds much in the way of danger or rebellion anymore. Still, for these kids--who are more 92.5 FM than 102.5, anyway--these songs rock. Solomon has so many kids (and some adults) clamoring to take hour-long rock music lessons that he's had to hire extra hands, including guitarist/bassist/violinist Eric Neal and pianist Mike Saunders, to keep up with demand. Right now, the school has around 70 students. It will continue to grow.
Twice a year, I come to these rock recitals--I mean concerts. Not so much because I'm inspired by the kids' talent, but because I'm inspired by their enthusiasm. They have a joy in performance that is so earnest, so wonderfully free of the posturing and attitude older, wiser musicians use to obscure the fact that performing in front of strangers is kinda scary. These kids have fun, and it's hard to hide a smile when they're onstage. But, strangely, I also feel a flicker of envy. From age 6 to 10, I took piano lessons from a rather stern old woman who often pinched me when I missed a note. I played classical songs and quaint old hymns, but I can't imagine she would much tolerate what I really wanted to play--pop songs, music with lyrics written in the 20th century. Hell, I would have settled for Barbra Streisand. I hated practicing, feared lessons, but I'd sit in front of the Dan Coates songbook of contemporary classics for hours, tinkering around with "Feelings" and the love theme from Ice Castles. It didn't occur to me this was, in itself, a kind of piano practice. Instead, it felt like cheating.
In fifth grade, my mother finally allowed me to quit, a not entirely bloodless triumph. But I wonder what might have happened if I'd had a teacher like Solomon, someone approachable and excited about music. My kind of music. Someone, you know, cool.
Thirteen-year-old Lea Edwards has been taking lessons from Solomon for two years. She is tall and thin and gingerly plucks the notes on her red electric guitar with near-perfect posture. One day, she came home from practice and told her mom, "I'm gonna be a great musician one day."
"OK," said her mom, a little taken aback. "Why do you say that?"
"Because Marc told me. He said I feel the beat, even though sometimes my fingers can't make the notes."
When Lea's mom tells me this story, she leans in at this point. "And that's why she's still here," she says. "He makes her feel as though she has talent. I'm her mother. I don't know if she has talent or not." She points to Solomon with the stem of her sunglasses. "But I do know that's what great teachers do."
I asked Solomon why he likes teaching young people to play rock music, and though I don't recall exactly what he told me, he sent me an e-mail that night following a four-hour practice with the kids. "I don't think I answered your question about why I love it," he wrote. "It's because at the end of the day I feel great!! Kind of selfish, huh?"
Rock musicians have a natural kinship with adolescents, because there is no one in the world who cares more about rock music than they do. They could talk about it for days. They could swim in it, eat it, dress in it and never change the subject.
As a kid, Marc Solomon fell hard for rock music. He studied guitar at Dallas' Arts Magnet and later moved to L.A., where he lived out his childhood dreams by joining a band with ex-Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson, who was a bit of a child prodigy himself, starting in the legendary band at age 13. The band, called Perfect, recorded a well-received EP, When Squirrels Play Chicken, and Stinson and Solomon can be heard on the rock remix of the 1997 Puff Daddy smash "It's All About the Benjamins." But the band's name wasn't entirely prophetic: The label shelved their full-length for years, and, by 1999, it was all over. Solomon found himself in New York without a band or a job.
A friend in Dallas, who worked at the now-defunct Mars Record Store, was hiring guitar teachers. Solomon figured: What the hell? "In the back of my head, I still wanted to pursue the rock-and-roll fantasy," he says. His next band, Clumsy, was as promising as Perfect but ultimately as doomed. Clumsy broke up; Solomon's guitar lessons took off.
There is a conventional wisdom that men who play rock music are a little reluctant to, you know, grow up. And so it probably wouldn't surprise you that a person who spends most of his time not only playing rock music but also playing it with middle-schoolers would be described by many as "a big kid." And he is. Solomon has a mop of curly dark hair and an easy laugh that fills a room. He wears old, soft T-shirts with band names on them, vintage trousers and Converse, and he doesn't seem particularly concerned with such adult concerns as sophistication or maturity. But it would be wrong to say he refuses to grow up--he's engaged to a lovely woman, for one thing, but more important, he has done what every unfamous artist scrambling to make rent hopes for: He has turned his passion into a paying job.
Solomon left Mars to go out on his own, and within a year and a half he had a full schedule of kids. He teaches them to play radio hits, yes, but also more. In the rock shows, he teaches them to play together and watch each other. He teaches them to jam, something even some of the most accomplished musicians can't do. And he teaches them to read, at least a little bit. "I tell my kids, 'You can crack the code,'" he says. "'It's a different language that not a lot of people can read. Don't you wanna know it?'"
Unlike other musicologists who turn up their noses at three-chord songs and bubblegum pop, Solomon is unusually bereft of musical snobbery. Sure, he loves his Replacements and Clash, but he's also willing to teach a little girl to play Kelly Clarkson's "Breakaway." ("That's a pretty good little tune," he says with a shrug.)
"I try to show my kids a broad scope of music, not just get them to like what I like," he says. A rock concert with Solomon's kids can segue from modern radio hits like Jet's "Are You Gonna Be My Girl?" to Nirvana's "All Apologies," the selections driven purely by what inspires the kids, what fires their imagination. A lot of the songs happen to be classics, because today's dominant hip-hop, rap and Top 40 pop tunes are, for the most part, guitar-lite when compared with, say, the glory days of '70s arena rock. "I did recently have a request for the song 'Shadow,' though," Solomon says. "And the kid didn't even know the Burden Brothers were from Dallas! To him, it was just another song on the radio. And that was the exciting part, that I could tell him not only are these guys from your town, but the guitarist? The guy's a good friend of mine; I played with him in Clumsy. And that night, I bet you anything, that kid went home and looked it all up on the Internet. That guy Corey, yeah, he used to be in a band with my teacher. Kinda cool, huh?"
In fact, Burden Brothers guitarist Corey Rozzoni was in the audience at the last "Rock Show." And it's not rare to find other local fixtures in those fold-out chairs, either--the Deathray Davies' John Dufilho and Salim Nourallah have attended, and former End Over End's David Mabry often fills in on drums. That's because Solomon isn't just an old hat in the Dallas scene; he's still active. He recently started another band, Solly, which released an album of infectious Replacements-era pop-rock called Get It Wrong It's Alright.
"Kids see the real-life version of what it means to be a musician today," says Jana Littlejohn, whose two sons have taken lessons with Solomon for more than two years. The Littlejohn brothers are prominent at every rock concert--11-year-old Ben switching between bass and guitar and 13-year-old Chris behind the drum set on practically every song. These kids aren't just good child musicians; they're good musicians, period. They get it. At one concert, Chris' manic arm-flailing performance of The Who's "My Generation" had one audience member exclaiming, "Oh, my God. It's a little Keith Moon!"
"They would do this every day if they could," says Jana Littlejohn, whose Episcopal Church of the Ascension now donates space for the rock shows. "Marc inspires my children. They just soak him up." Earlier this year, as he does with many students, he took both boys to Aerosmith and Elvis Costello concerts. When Solly played the tsunami benefit at the Granada Theater in January, the Littlejohns were in the front of the audience, along with a cluster of Solomon's other students, looking on adoringly.
When I ask how playing music has changed her sons, Jana Littlejohn's eyes go wide and she searches for the words. "You know, you read things about how kids who study music do better in school. Well, nothing like that happened," she says with a laugh. "But I don't know, they just have so much more confidence."
Around 4:30 p.m., minivans start pulling up outside Marc Solomon's home. Mothers perch their sunglasses in their hair and help unload amps and guitar cases from the back seat. Kids with baby fat still in the cheeks, with oily foreheads and braces lug guitars to the garage, where Solomon holds his lessons. Today, the group is rehearsing for the April 25 Rock Show. They are playing Guns N' Roses' "Sweet Child o' Mine," with freshman Brian Jonesmastering Slash's searing opening notes. One of the problems with rock school concerts is that despite so many musicians, few of the students actually sing, which means Solomon handles most vocals.
"I don't really know this one," he says, looking around for a lyric sheet. "OK, I'm not sure how I'm gonna sound. Do you guys know Ethel Merman?"
The kids stare at him blankly.
Solomon is a competent singer, sometimes even a great one. (At one concert, his vocals on Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll" were absolutely killer.) But his voice struggles to reach Axl Rose's warbly falsetto. Solomon doesn't mind at all, just soldiers on, motioning for kids to come in, keep tempo, giving the occasional thumbs-up when they nail it. And this is when I recognize another strength Marc Solomon has as a teacher. He's absolutely without self-consciousness. He doesn't consider it embarrassing not to hit these notes. It's no big deal. For all the joys that music brings, one of the most excruciating parts is the humiliation of making mistakes, of not being good enough. But Solomon doesn't feel embarrassed about his limitations, so neither should you. That's a gift he gives to every student: Get it wrong, it's all right.
The song ends, and as Solomon goes over the chords again with a guitar player, a mother steps inside the dim garage. She looks like she's just come from a tennis match, with tanned, trim legs and white shorts. As the band launches into the third (or fourth, or fifth) rehearsal of "Sweet Child o' Mine," she smiles proudly and taps her foot along to the beat. It's funny to see her slumming here; she looks too manicured for such grungy guitar-band digs. Even with SUVs and country club manners, this new generation of parents just seems cooler than before. Or maybe, in the end, just more tolerant. After a while, she shoots me a look. "It's kind of loud in here, isn't it?" she asks. Before the song ends, she sneaks out, saying, as she leaves, "Well, maybe I'll just listen from outside, you know?"
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